Renters fear ending up homeless when public health emergency ends

Aired July 1, 2020
By Leah Mishkin

Tenant advocate Maria Lopez-Nunez says she hears dozens of renter horror stories a day.

Jose Ortiz works for Essex Newark Legal Servic
es and offers free legal assistance to low-income families. He says he hears similar cries for help since the pandemic began, like a landlord trying to get sex in exchange for rent.

“That is very real. There is a Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, campaign around sexual harassment and sexual assault and abuse for tenants,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Ortiz says renters are now being threatened to be thrown out of their homes for not paying on time, despite the state eviction moratorium. Others are being told they can’t use their security deposits, even though it’s required under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order.

“In some situations, we have landlords cutting off essential services like water, electricity in an attempt to displace them,” Ortiz said.

David Brogan is the executive director for New Jersey Apartment Association, which represents owners, managers and developers.

“It’s definitely not the majority. NJAA members, again, have been establishing repayment plans from the time that those tenants have needed them,” Brogan said.

Once Murphy lifts the public health emergency, the eviction moratorium will only last 60 days.

“I have clients calling us in a state of panic. They’re like, I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. What I see is the streets at the end of the tunnel,” Ortiz said.

On a federal level, Berger is pushing for the Heroes Act, which has a $100 billion rental assistance program. She says $3 billion would go to New Jersey, the amount she says is needed.

“To cover the missed payments that people have experienced due to loss of income, either themselves or someone else in their household,” she said.

On a state level, she wants to see the people’s bill signed into law because it creates a buffer until money arrives. Essentially, for every month a renter owes, they will have six months to repay it.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see mass evictions at the end of this crisis, but, unfortunately, right now the bill is not appropriately targeted to those who are negatively impacted by COVID-19,” said Brogan.

Both sides support New Jersey’s COVID-19 $100 million Emergency Rental Assistance Program for low and moderate-income families.

Applications open next week. But Nunez says it’s barely going to make a dent, and that both state and federal officials need to act fast before the situation gets even worse.